Across the street from my Brooklyn apartment sit a stack of white plastic chairs, slowly accumulating a layer of snow. On the other side of the country, three more of those same chairs are scattered around my parents' pool, while in Yemen, I imagine, rows upon rows of them are lined up for a wedding. Others float in a massive trash heap in the Pacific, there are probably more still in an old woman's home in South America, piled with magazines. I imagine there is at least one such white plastic chair circling us somewhere in orbit. Maybe that seems benign to you, but in truth, the ubiquity of those white chairs is terrifying, and a very bad sign for the state of world culture.
The first cheap, lightweight, stackable, injection molded plastic chair—called a monobloc chair—was probably designed in 1967 by an Italian named Vico Magistretti, then mass produced in the 70s by a company called the Grosfillex Group, but since there are no original patents, nobody really knows who was first responsible. Nor does anyone know how many manufacturers of monoblocs there are today, or even how many have been made, although that number is likely in the billions, though we do know they are all around the world.
But unlike similar global objects like lighters, televisions, paper clips, cigarettes, transistor radios, and AK-47s, these chairs are "context free." MIT's Director of Civic Media Studies, Ethan Zuckerman, explained the significance of the monobloc on his blog a few years ago: "Virtually every object suggests a time and place... The shape of electrical outlets, labels on any consumer products, fabrics, clothing all [are] clues as to whether a photo was taken in the 1970s or last week, in Sweden or Schenectady. The Monobloc is one of the few objects I can think of that is free of any specific context. Seeing a white plastic chair in a photograph offers you no clues about where or when you are."
Photo by Flickr user Eva the Weaver
Humans are separated by our various contexts: wealth, age, race, gender, geography, religion, sexual orientation, height, weight, etc. Manmade objects almost always follow those divides—certain people own certain things, certain possessions signify wealth or poverty or some subcultural cache. Yet the monobloc stands alone, as a singular object, unrelated to its surroundings, and yet distinctly unavoidable and non-biodegradable; perhaps immortal.
I spoke with Ethan Zuckerman about my monobloc anxiety, the ubiquity of these chairs, and what this says about the globalization of culture.
VICE: To me, the lack of context in the monobloc is inherently disturbing. Like, how can an object as widespread as this chair be so disconnected from its environment?
Ethan Zuckerman: I have the same problem with the monobloc. I was looking for some way to sort of talk about them as the world's most globalized object and thought there was some story behind it, like some giant conglomerate that produces all the world's monobloc chairs. The answer, of course, was more subtle and a bit more complicated than that. It's not that there's a single corporation, because it's actually a pretty easy process if you're going to have any level of industrialization. It is what you might call an "aspirational class object." So as long as you have people in a society with some disposable income, you're going to end up with monoblocs. You're going to end up with people looking for seating that is some level above sitting on the ground or sitting on a log or a very basic stool.
Photo by Flickr user Bjørn Giesenbauer
There's this essay by Ingo Niermann in which he says that "white plastic chairs are the real evil of globalization," in reference to that sort of cheap mass production spreading throughout an existing culture.
Ha! It's a super popular wealthy, Western, intellectual stance to be opposed to all aspects of globalization. It's so easy to just sit there and say that the spread of corporate power is bad, the indigenous culture is good, and the monobloc is an example of this cheap throwaway culture that's destroying the local culture. But I've spent a good chunk of my professional life in the developing world and a lot of people there are really excited about having access to the material culture that people in the West have. I just think it's insanely paternalistic to just sit there and say that poor people can't have monobloc chairs because it's bad for their culture. I think there are aspects of that which are probably true. It's probably quite bad for local furniture businesses when the monobloc takes hold. But I think this sort of notion that this is a virus and it should be fought fails to recognize that people in the developing world have a choice as to what they want to spend their resources on. I think it's condescending to the extreme. It's not that Walmart is churning these things out—it's actually people in the developing world making these. It doesn't feel like an obliteration of culture. It feels like poor people getting the chance to buy goods as representation of their aspirations.
Photo via Flickr user caratello
So you consider that kind of globalization to be a necessary aspect of a developing country's evolution?
I guess what I'm saying is when you are connected with global information flow, and everybody is, your desire and material wants are going to globalize as well. When people see goods become available to them in local markets or seeing them on TV, people want those goods. So, I think you have to sort of recognize that people get to make decisions about goods. Pretending that it's not there and it's just going to all go away, that doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I think a lot of the critiques on globalization and imperialism in the material form are deeply naïve.
So it's not a concentrated effort to Westernize—just that the monobloc is objectively a pretty good seating solution because it is cheap and context-free. What happens to culture when the path of least resistance leads to the monobloc?
You could probably think about the state of a culture based on the state of its chairs. There's probably some state where the monobloc is a nicer type of furniture that people have on average, which people really aspire to, almost as a status symbol. There was a real period in the United States where homespun clothing was a real sign of poverty. What people wanted was manufactured fabrics—and obviously, at this point, we're now at a different place. Having a hand-tailored suit, for instance, is a status symbol because all the rest of us are wearing machine-made clothes. I guess you have a similar development with the monobloc where it is aspirational. It's a pretty good price-to-performance ratio, it's pretty well engineered, and at that point the handmade object becomes the luxury object.
Photo by Flickr user fliegender
But doesn't just lead to the global homogenization of culture?
I think the subtle thing is globalization isn't usually homogenous. McDonald's, for example. Everybody uses McDonald's as a shorthand for homogeneity, but it's not, it's deeply local. I think there are at least two monoblocs to be talked about, right? There's the one monobloc that is so generic that you don't know whether you're in Ghana or Georgia. There's also the monobloc that takes on the local identity, with an inlaid design or pattern. In some ways that's an even weirder monobloc because we don't know if it's really local or if it's made non-locally, like in China, but attempting to be locally appropriate instead of context-free.
Bootleg regional monoblocs.
Maybe the monobloc is sort of the victory of high modernist design. Designers are people who always want their objects to be universal. They never want them to be only culturally specific. They want to transcend, so it can be used by all people. So maybe this is the high modernist design culture just on a cultural level where everybody can afford it.
Photo by Flickr user Olga Nohra
The monobloc approaches some level of natural man-made perfection. There's something beautiful about the ability to make something that is sturdy, lightweight, and cost-effective.
It is the outcome of one particular part of evolution. If you want to create a chair that is cheap, functional, easy to manufacture, and universally acceptable, at the end of a long process you would most likely have the monobloc. What's scary about it is that you sort of can't imagine turning the knob anything further because, at a certain point it's no longer a chair. It's evolution that can go no further.
And we don't even really know who invented it.
Well, the chair has this really interesting place for the designers. Every designer wants to make a chair, but chairs are a fucking pain in the ass. They are really, really difficult. The back has to curve, it has to be slanted at a certain angle, and making it comfortable for people to sit on is a pretty serious challenge—that's why designers' chairs are signature artworks. Then the monobloc is that challenge, plus the challenge of making something cheap enough to manufacture, and cheap enough for anyone to own. So we turn all those attributes to 11, and here's what we get. Maybe it's the world's most perfectly designed object.
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